i'm pretty sure this leadership book won't make it on the bestseller list

booksnote: this is part of the monthly synchroblog. in honor of today’s election the topic was leadership.  you can check out all the links below.

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i don’t go to christian bookstores very often. every time i end up there i always have to call a friend or two to share an utterly ridiculous bestseller title & gripe about the christian industry and the craziness that sells.   too many books on the bestseller list about “conflict-free living”, “move on, move up” “the ultimate checklist for life”, “happiness matters: 21 thoughts to change your life” and how to somehow garner and grab “your best life now.”  it’s funny but it’s not at the same time.  some material i co-wrote in 2007 for women to actually become more honest in their journey is actually kind of like that, too, and as much as i pushed for different statements on the cover that were more reflective of the content inside, the reality is that ‘success sells’ and the marketing department gets the final say (and in my situation the by-far leading christian retailer of bibles studies won’t sell it anyway because they theologically disagree with woman pastors. yeah, you can read more about that debaucle from last year here.  they’re the same ones who pulled the recent gospel today magazines from their shelves).  sorry to digress, but i sometimes just can’t resist sharing how truly crazy real life in certain circles can sometimes be.

my point: many of us christians have subtly or not-so-subtly bought into the consumer & business culture in so many ways that what’s successful in the world’s eyes has blurred into what’s supposedly successful in the kingdom. so when it comes to leadership, why should i be surprised that words like excellence, strategic, visionary, and results are often at the top of the list? the trouble is that when i read the gospels i see a totally contradictory story being told about what’s important. what we should consider. how we should be. what following Christ will actually look like. what kind of leadership is reflected.  yeah, i am pretty certain it’s not the kind the sells.  or the kind that wins elections.

what i love about Jesus is he would be perceived by many best-selling leadership books as the worst possible leader, a certain failure.  no clearly articulated strategy, terribly confusing communication, horrible picks for his lead team, a tendency to spend an inordinate amount of time on people that probably would never contribute to the organization’s success, and an inability to see it all the way through by leaving before any tangible goals seemingly were realized.  when i think about it, it’s all kind of comical.  at the same time, the current state of affairs of the church, of the world, really, is that many have a tendency to have expectations of leaders that are completely opposite of Jesus’ model. many want squared away.  clarity.  a hero.  results. a do-er, a mover, a shaker, a builder.  someone to inspire & say the things we want to hear.  that is what the Jews wanted when Jesus came onto the scene.  little did they know they’d get the utter opposite.

this is my mediocre & extremely simplistic interpretation, but if i was reading Jesus’ leadership book, here’s a few things that i glean from his words, his example:

build a team that makes no sense at all to the experts. typical leadership books teach us to find people who are like-minded, who can replicate our vision, and are somehow how all on the “same page.”  this breeds uniformity & conformity instead of a diversity that on the outside looks like it would never work.  i always chuckle when i look at who Jesus chose for the original 12 disciples: a hodge podge of guys with no education, training & experience.  the one thing they had in common: willing hearts to go. as a leader, i have a love-hate thing with diversity.  it’s way easier to connect with people who are somehow like me. but it’s not good, either.  homogenous teams are knowingly (and unknowingly) perpetuated in most church (and political and organizational) circles; i think that’s because most of us tend to like to be with other people like us & so we replicate ourselves.  it makes us feel more comfortable.  in a very small way, i am experiencing what it’s like to be on a team that doesn’t make sense. the  refuge team is fairly diverse in terms of socioeconomics, theology, ministry philosophy, age, gender, life experience (we are really lacking in racial diversity, though, but hope that shifts over time), and i’ll admit: sometimes it drives me crazy!  diversity does make it harder to lead. it’s less efficient. it’s more confusing. but sometimes what doesn’t make sense actually does in different ways we don’t expect if we’re willing to take the risk.

spend most all of your time with the least likely. typical leadership strategies say “find your strong people and pour into them.”  so many youth ministries have been built on the same principle–the popular kids will help you grow your ministry so cultivate relationship with them first. in a typical church setting, just find out who the pastors play golf with.  the most likely to lead, give & make things happen.  when we started the refuge, multiple ministry friends told us that if they were us, “they’d surround themselves with some studs” who could really build this thing.  umm, yeah, pretty counter-cultural to everything i have come to believe about leadership because guess what that means?  the unpopular people, the less pretty, socially awkward, strugglers, doubters, fringers will always stay separated and underneath the rest.  my friends will never get to play on their team.  that is messed up.  the kingdom is for all.  the church is supposed to be the most level playing field in town & unfortunately it tends to look a lot more like choosing dodgeball teams in middle school, the best players get chosen first & play the game while the rest are token participants that everyone somehow tolerates because the PE teacher is watching.  in Jesus, we are all equal.  we are all valuable.  we all have something to contribute.  and even though Jesus didn’t completely ignore the typical influencers & elite, he did mostly spend time interacting with his rag-tag group of disciples and other marginalized, desperate, hungry, seeking folks.

radical inclusion will get you in trouble but it’s worth it. women. lepers. notorious sinners. the unclean.  Jesus was always including the ones that the system said to separate from & getting himself in all kinds of trouble because of it.  imagine if we’d all be that brave?

the lower you go the better. i love john 13-17. amazing words of what true leadership looks like.  Jesus, God incarnate, washing feet.  giving his power to others.  reminding to not rely on him any longer but on the holy spirit that would always be within them to guide and show them the way.  preparing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. going to the lowest of low places on our behalf.  in this moment i think of mother teresa & gandhi.  great leaders who could have easily followed the path of the powerful, separating themselves from others & rising to the top of some crazy org chart.  instead, they kept living out their values in humility & action not just words, focusing on serving in love instead of amassing positional power that protected and insulated them.

give it all, like all, away. any power Jesus had he passed on to the people around him.  now you go do it, he said, i’m going to slip away now.  you have everything you need.  go do it.  go do it.  go do it.  yeah, he gave it all away.  all of it.

what’s interesting to me is that even though most every christian would say that Jesus was the greatest leader of all time, most all of us aren’t too thrilled with what we have to follow in terms of his example.   i know i’m not.  i think that’s why it’s so easy to buy into the worldly/corporate model. it truly is easier, safer, more predictable.  and for all intents and purposes, it probably does “work.”  it is definitely what will get you elected. or a good paying church job! i do have so much of the old dna embedded inside me and i am sure that is why a lot of the time i feel like such a leadership loser.  and yep, by a typical christian leadership book, i am. i am pretty sure we’re not strategic enough, focused enough, certain enough, objective enough, faithful enough, tough enough, you-name-it enough. but i think what i am learning is that most all the measures i used to value are probably the last thing i should be measuring myself against.

all that said. i have deep respect for how tricky true leadership really is. it’s risky to put yourself out there for the sake of others. i feel sorry for whichever presidential candidate wins today because they will never ever be able to live up to what they have promised.  but guaranteed, there’ll be a leadership book on the bestseller list about each of them within the next 6 months.

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ps: check out these other interesting & diverse posts about leadership today:

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • As I read this today I was struck with how often I need to be reminded of these truths. I know them. I believe them. But the reality is that is like being a salmon swimming upstream in order to walk out these truths daily. Thanks for the reminder to keep going against the flow!

  • great entry. I agree with everything I think (wow). 🙂 I have been entertaining thoughts very similiar to these after some nudging from you & Pops ….

  • I’m glad I read this. Thanks so much for writing it!!
    I’ve always struggled with wanting to be successful, to be a leader. I can have some idea and take it to this huge thing with great success in my mind in a nano second. Wow, that thing can be such a monster. After realizing that a couple of years ago, I started avoiding leadership positions in whatever way I could.
    Only lately I am starting to realize that I am supposed to be following and serving. And, I agree with you, it sure would be easier to follow any example in this world besides Jesus’. I still totally suck at it.

  • I always love reading your stuff, Kathy, you have such great insight that really brings me back to earth. Jesus really was putting himself out there, he wasn’t apart of the “easy”, “popular” crowd. He was real!
    I really feel like the more you experience the real, hard, junk life can throw at you the more you learn the fullness of true Christ like living. Mother Theresa is a perfect example of that.

  • Kathy — great post.

    Agree with this statement (and pretty much the rest of the post) completely:
    “the current state of affairs of the church, of the world, really, is that many have a tendency to have expectations of leaders that are completely opposite of Jesus’ model.”

    But disagree with this:
    “many want squared away. clarity. a hero. results. a do-er, a mover, a shaker, a builder. someone to inspire & say the things we want to hear. that is what the Jews wanted when Jesus came onto the scene. little did they know they’d get the utter opposite.”

    I think Jesus was the prime example of a leader with clarity (and a hero, do-er, mover, shaker, builder, visionary, inspiring teacher). He was absolutely clear about his mission, about what his Father had called him to do, and he would not be moved from it. The conflict came because his Father’s mission was so radically subversive and unexpected, that it challenged the status quo and the prescripted expectations of what the Messiah was to be — a conquering hero, and not a suffering servant (which actually is even more heroic).

    The problem for me is when we let “the worldly/corporate model” define our terms for us — Jesus was truly, absolutely, SUCCESSFUL in accomplishing his mission — it’s just not the kind of success we’ve come to expect. His mission was to die, bear our sin, and sacrifice himself for us — and he did it perfectly.

    True visionary leadership is not about developing and sticking to a strategic plan then — it’s about being clear and strategically focused on seeking out and following the light God does give us — even when it challenges and upsets the places of comfort we so artfully craft for ourselves…

  • I love this post, both because it is so well written and incisive and funny, but for the egoistic reason that it comes to the same point as my post from a different, and I think better direction. Leading like Jesus led just doesn’t work in this world; no one in charge would like his “business model” and that is, in my view, exactly the point. Thanks very much for it.

  • You said, “what’s interesting to me is that even though most every christian would say that Jesus was the greatest leader of all time, most all of us aren’t too thrilled with what we have to follow in terms of his example.”

    That’s friggin awesome.

  • Well said.

    I started posting a series titled “The Men Who Would Not Be Pastor” and it reminds me a lot of what you are saying here about what the church commonly recognizes as leadership is not… just look at outreach magazines’ “most influential leaders” and compare these folks to your list…

  • As usual Kathy – great post! I keep hearing this ongoing message that we have to be willing to take risks if we really want to follow Jesus.

  • My son works in a bookshop, and says the best-selling books are the self-help books written by people whose only success is in writing self-help books. In the words of a friend of mine, “We don’t want to look like a failure, and just for that reason we are one.”

  • I am surprised with all the “how to” books out there, we still as a Church don’t know “how to” – perhaps we lean way too much on our own understanding.

    “many of us christians have subtly or not-so-subtly bought into the consumer & business culture in so many ways that what’s successful in the world’s eyes has blurred into what’s supposedly successful in the kingdom” – AMEN SISTER!!!

    The model of a servant – I am still learning, for the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve ….

  • After reading your blog, I don’t want to be a leader anymore. So what am I doing in a Master of Arts in Ministry Leadership program? Where do we get all this spiritual leadership stuff from anyway? I’m all for follower-ship. Perhaps it’s because I feel like an abysmal failure according to so many leadership standards. Spiritual leadership seems like a mythological construct anyway. I love how you said, the church is supposed to be the most level playing field in town & unfortunately it tends to look a lot more like choosing dodgeball teams in middle school, the best players get chosen first & play the game while the rest are token participants that everyone somehow tolerates because the PE teacher is watching. At times I still feel like a token player, just like I did in middle school. Perhaps we need to change the game.

  • I love what you’ve written here, Kathy. And I agree with you that people appear to ignore what Christ did and Who Christ Is, even those who claim to follow Him. And it is hard to write and talk about what the scriptures say when it often falls on deafened ears. I suppose that is how Jesus felt?

  • Pretty sure that I have many of those christian-y/self-help-y/now dust-y leadership books & guides to how-to-really-do-the-walk-if-you-exactly follow the principles in this book. Oh, and this one too, along with the extra study guide. I can say that it was disappointing, at best, to realize how much un-learning has to be done about what I want to live out in regards to being a leader as well as a strong female. 🙂 I will say that authentically living out a passionate, yet wounded healer model is so so so much harder than the always always together, and therfore untouchable leader. So very worth it, though. 😉

  • thanks for all the thoughts shared here. the last few days have been crazy (what’s new?) so i am behind in all kinds of ways but i wanted to respond & say that i really have appreciated reading the leadership posts. lots of great thoughts floating around about what could be.

    tracy – yeah, salmon upsstream is a great image for sure. that’s why we need others on the same journey to help increase the chances of making it there!

    randi – well that’s fun 🙂

    jim – oh yeah i know the monster well. it’s such a default and engrained in us somehow. i think that’s why every step we take, no matter what kind of role we are in, will always be a place for spiritual transformation to take place if we are willing to soften our hearts enough to see our humanity, our need for approval & success, oh all kinds of things that detract us from freedom & will muck things up.

    sami – great to hear from you here. i miss you!!!

    steve – i really do totally agree with you that jesus was all of those things, for reals, but i do think he did all of the things that he did in such an utterly different upside down way than what we think of in terms of “hero, mover, doer, builder, inspir-er” that it is hard to see it in the same terms. and that really is what we’re both getting at–that true leadership is something that sometimes so subversive that it is more powerful than we’d ever think. thanks always for sharing your thoughts here, they help me not go totally off the edge sometimes 🙂

    bill – thanks for commenting and for your post, too. i commented there last night. yeah, same thoughts, different language but that is what is fun, the diversity.

    amy – thanks!

    jonathan & jeff – yeah, i have been thinking about that thought a lot, too. all sounds good. i can write it like it’s nothing. i can read it like it’s nothing. but when the rubber meets the road, um, it’s bumpy.

    j.r. – yeah, every time every leader fits the model of what we deem as “successful” and the underground leaders never get acknowledged. i think that is what perpetuates all the nonsense!

    gracerules – it really is risky business. that is what i’ve been thinking of more and more, just how risky it is to follow the ways of jesus.

    steve – now that’s a great quote!!!!

    mark – yep, i am learning too.

    elizabeth – yeah, i think it’s confusing, the whole seminary thing but i think what is exciting to me is hopefully there will be a whole new layer of leaders who are willing to take great risks to make the shifts necessary to better align “church” with the ways of Jesus. i think it’s so possible and i have great hope that people like you will be part of it 🙂

    bryan – it is all so interesting how contradicting we are as people. i am so guilty of it, too. lots to continue to learn and wrestle with.

    stacy – yep, unlearning is such a great way to put it. it is really foreign, this different way of being, and the truth is that because women already aren’t fully included it makes it even one layer more complicated. but i do believe the ways of Jesus are more compelling, that actions do speak louder than words, and that somehow that will endure…

    sally – 🙂

  • Kathy:

    I have done the “smooth” road. Give me the “bumpy” road. Now grant it, at times, I long for the smooth road and crusing at 70 mph and seeing all the wonderful sights … because the bumpy road is much rougher.

  • I apologize if I am covering old ground here – as I have not read ALL the posts – but I’d like to share what my friend, Peter Block has to say about leadership – Peter leads from the side of the room.

    This is in the context of civic engagement and I think it applies to all leadership roles.

    Leaders are conveners – we hold leaders to 2 tasks

    to create a context that nutures an alternative future, one based on inclusivenss and hospitality

    to initiate conversations that shift our experience, which occurs through the way we bring people together and the nature of the questions we use to engage them.

    Additionally, it is about engaging groups of people in a way that crates accountability, which is to care for the well being of the whole, and committment, which is to make and fulfill a promise without expectation of return.

    See Peter Blook’s “Community – the Structure of Belonging.

  • jeff – yeah, me too. once you’ve tasted it, there’s no going back no matter how bumpy it is!

    elaine – always great to hear from you! i love both of these thoughts & when i think of Jesus, he did both of these, didn’t he? really good stuff.

  • randi & sage – yeah, that was really good. interesting how others are taking note, saying the same thing, asking some of those questions from the outside. thanks for sharing.

    mike – thanks for stopping by…

  • Kathy: Thank you for this excellent, transparent, and truly well spoken blog entry. It gave me hope and encouragement. I spent the last 2.5 years loving the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised people that society and more often then not the church has treated like throw-aways or too-far-gones for even God to transform. They were resident of a residential motel in one of the poorest and toughest urban areas of the county I live in. Then 3 months ago the motel closed, plus I left an institutional church I had been part of partially because the leadership was becoming less and less like Jesus. So again thank you it is nice to see I’m not the only one who thinks this way and attempts to walk this way. So for such a long comment.

  • I was at the library today and a friend came up to me with a book about 7 steps to a happy you…or something like that. I sometimes wish there were 7 very well laid out steps that would grab happiness for me. But then again…maybe that would be boring. I guess in retrospect, I’ve had some good laughs over the lessons I had to learn, as well as some cathartic tears.

    I liked your breakdown of some of Jesus’ leadership ideas. I remember as a 13 year old girl really falling in love with the idea of God relating to people who were confused. Somehow I connected Jesus’ leadership traits with a belief that he understood people who didn’t know who they were yet and didn’t feel like they fit in. I’m glad I made that connection. I still like to think of him that way….when I think of him.

  • tom – hey great to hear from you here. thanks for commenting. i am wondering how you found this blog? oh yes, just another story that makes my heart sick. i would love to hear more.

    lisa – 7 steps…boy do those books sell! i love that that is what you were drawn to about jesus, “God relating to people who were confused, who didn’t know who they were yet and didn’t feel like they fit in.” that is one of my favorite parts about him & it definitely doesn’t fit with the typical leadership models, that is for sure.


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